how to hear guitar scales

Ear training, especially for guitar, is probably the least interesting thing to do on the instrument, though perhaps one of the most important skills to practice. So, instead of tedious interval exercises, I’ve come up with a method you can use to practice fine-tuning your ear while also practicing your scales, as well as working on your technique. Incidentally, this method also gives you a more musical option for starting scales from the low E string, if you suffer from that problem.

What we’re going to do is adapt several scale patterns to include a triad as the first three notes. You can either play this triad as single notes as part of the scale or play it as a chord, then play the rest of the scale. What this does is it gives your ear a nudge so that it takes more notice of the sounds (intervals) in the scale, as what you tend to do when practicing scales is to switch off or not really pay attention to each scale degree, and it just becomes a technical exercise.

Here are three diagrams for the A Aeolian scale, each of which starts with a triad to alert your ear, then you play out the rest of the pattern.

aeolian scale

As these patterns are slightly more musical, they make the scale sound like what it’s supposed to sound like, if you see what I mean. Very often, and especially to beginners, scales sound more like a random sequence of notes that any particularly defined sound, which is another benefit of this kind of ear training for guitar.

Try these next patterns; this time we’ll use the Dorian scale, which has only one different interval from the Aeolian scale. You should be able to hear it more clearly by using this method of ear training for guitar.

dorian scale

Here’s the Phrygian scale version, which has a much more obvious sound but can get lost sometimes if you’re not really hearing it.

phrygian scale

I find this ear training method particularly effective for scales that are difficult to hear at first such as the melodic minor or the more exotic scales. Here are the patterns you’ll need:

ear training for guitar

Ear training with other triads

As almost all scales inevitably contain some kind of triad, be it minor, major, diminished, or augmented, you can apply this idea to any scale, especially those you find difficult to hear. Here’s the Lydian scale, which uses a major triad:

ear training for guitarists

Incidentally, if you’re looking for a great ear training app, look no further than Functional Ear Trainer (Android | Apple).